Peak conditions: taking on the Caribbean’s mountain ranges

The Caribbean is a region of hills and mountains, not just beaches and bays. Maria Sebastian tackles the double challenge of St Lucia’s Pitons, and Janelle Chanona braves the rigours of Belize’s Victoria Peak. Plus vertical adventures in Cuba, Guyana, Dominica, and Trinidad

Gros Piton from the summit of Petit Piton. Photograph by Chris HuxleyVictoria Peak. Copyright Tony Rath / tonyrath.comVictoria Peak, more than twenty miles inland, is visible from the Caribbean Sea. Copyright Tony Rath / tonyrath.comEl Yunque is Spanish for “The Anvil”, and the table mountain’s name makes perfect sense when you glimpse its profile. The summit offers views of Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt. Paul D. Smith/Shutterstock.comRising sheer from the great savanna of the Guyana Shield, Roraima — a flat-topped tepui, whose unearthly topography inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World — boasts the Triple Point where the borders of three nations meet. © Adrian Warren/www.lastrefuge.co.ukFamously — if apocryphally — a certain Genoese explorer described Dominica to a certain Spanish queen by crumpling a piece of paper, to demonstrate its mountainous topography. The challenging trail up Morne Micotrin gives extraordinary views of nearby peaks, like Morne Watt. Photograph by Celia SorhaindoEl Cerro del Aripo may be Trinidad’s highest point, but for hikers El Tucuche — with its distinctive vertical profile, the adrenaline-inspiring Devil’s Staircase, and summit views across both the north coast and the central plains — is the real prize. Photograph by Edison Boodoosingh

Twice the heights

St Lucia’s Gros Piton and Petit Piton are icons of the island’s mountainous landscape, and a challenge for hikers. Most people would settle for climbing just one of the twin peaks, but Maria Sebastian goes for the double summit

As the airplane rounded St Lucia, I pressed my face against the window in shock at what I saw. Despite all the lush hills and valleys, jagged seaside cliffs, and turquoise water along the shoreline, my eyes were transfixed on one thing — or should I say two: the Pitons.

I’m an avid traveller and adventure enthusiast. Researching new destinations is an addiction. But when I learned my job was moving me to St Lucia, I did the unthinkable: I made the deliberate decision to remain ignorant. No guide books, no Google search, nothing. My incongruous logic was, why spoil the first impression of my new home?

But you can’t be in St Lucia very long without encountering the Pitons, the twin volcanic peaks on the south-western coast, and the island’s most stunning sights. The Pitons are symbols of St Lucia’s natural beauty — they appear on the national flag, in stylised form, and even the local beer is named after them.

So two months after my arrival, still curious, I decide to climb Gros Piton, the taller of the two.

The hike begins in a community called Fond Jens Libre, which translates to “valley of the free people.” I learn that for centuries this place has cradled settlements of indigenous Kalinago, enslaved plantation workers, and self-liberated Africans (referred to as Maroons). As I pass through, I’m welcomed by the many descendants of these populations. Here I was thinking I was just going for a hike — I never expected to stumble upon such a historical landmine. I feel even more eager to climb this mountain now.

The first half of the climb is fairly easy for hikers of all levels. I reach the halfway point in about an hour. The second half of the trail is all trench stairs: tall, short, missing, muddy, and steep. Depending on your fitness level, this part can take one to three hours. But for me, the sound of a distant songbird, the sun peeking through the trees, and the smell of earth and flora make the challenge invigorating.

Thoroughly fatigued and sweating buckets, I finally reach the top. The two vista points are absolutely stunning. The stark elevation difference between the top of Gros Piton and the view of the southern tip of St Lucia glorify the 2,619 feet of my exertion. At the second vista point, I’m asked to take photos of a group of gleeful friends getting creative and posing with nearby Petit Piton as an optical illusion.

As I turn to start my trek back down, I look back and take one long look at the neighbouring mountain. “I’m coming for you next, Petit Piton,” I say out loud.

A few months later, I make good on my promise. And, as an extreme adventurer with a fascination for going off the beaten path, I must admit that the smaller Piton is my favourite. But a warning: this hike is for those of moderate to high fitness levels. The Petit Piton trail is maintained only as much as foot traffic allows. There are no built stairs and handrails — instead, you have rocks, tree roots, and some ropes.

Two highlights of Petit Piton: the “rabbit hole,” and the final twenty-foot rock climb. Unlike the rabbit hole Alice falls into, the one on Petit Piton actually refers to two large boulders with another huge rock sandwiched between them. I squeeze through a gap between the rocks, which is not too difficult for someone of my small size and moderate flexibility, but my six-foot-tall hiking mate does not even attempt the wriggle. Instead he climbs over the rock — not nearly as fun.

Then, intimidated, I stare at the final challenge: scaling up a sheer twenty-foot rock face using a single rope, no harness, and only the safety net of my hiking mate’s open arms below me. Thank goodness for Egbert, our guide, who directs me through the whole process. At one point he even offers his own hand to serve as a step for my foot.

At the top of Petit Piton is — in my opinion — the most beautiful 360-degree view of St Lucia: from the mountains and valleys of the north, all the way to Gros Piton and the southern hills. The nearby village of Soufrière looks miniscule, far below, and all the other peaks visible can’t compare to how tall I feel. The wind is so strong, I feel I am going to blow away.

As I sit on a flat patch, the sweat on my back instantly dries, and the wind howls in my ears. The sounds that travel with the wind vary from cars speeding on the highway below, to the distant hum of music playing from boats on the sea. It’s humbling to hear familiar sounds from 2,461 feet up. I feel almost like an astronaut looking down at earth from space.

 

Crowning Victoria

At the heart of the Maya Mountains, surrounded by rainforest, Victoria Peak is the second-highest point in Belize, and an exhilarating goal for the intrepid. Janelle Chanona braves the trek, the elevation, the fog — and perhaps the occasional jaguar — to reach the coveted top

If it weren’t for my skin, I’m positive my heart would explode right out of my chest. An intense pressure in my head magnifies my laboured breathing, deafening everything else. As I slowly lift my gaze to the earthen wall that the trail has become, streams of sweat course down my back. Not for the first time, I think, “What have you got yourself into now?”

A self-proclaimed weekend warrior, I have skydived over the Belize Barrier Reef, dived among the stalactites of the great Blue Hole, and ridden my bicycle across the length and breadth of Belize. But hiking 3,675 feet to the top of Victoria Peak is an intimidating challenge. The distance between base and peak is not long, about seventeen miles. But the mountain rises so sharply from the forest floor that the hike is considered one of the most strenuous climbs in Central America.

Located within the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Victoria Peak is the second-highest elevation in Belize. The four-day climb is reserved for “intrepid” hikers. While the first ten miles are a relative walk in the park, it takes a special kind of courage to get from there to the aptly named Dead Man’s Camp at mile twelve. Every step on the steep gradients of those two miles pales in comparison to what lies ahead. And zero to twelve, well, that’s just day one.

Mercifully, the trail is full of dazzling distractions. Nargusta, ceiba, and barba jolote trees tower above a thick carpet of green, red, and gold leaves. The clear waters of gurgling creeks and streams offer relief at regular intervals. Fresh jaguar tracks in the soft sand signal we’re not the only ones cooling off. Bird calls, like the “dog-bark hoots” of the Blue-Crowned Mot-Mot and the jarring cackling of the Montezuma Oropendola, fill the air.

Our guide Israel Manzanero mimics a long whistle followed by two short blasts. “That’s the Thrush-like Schiffornis saying, IIIIIIIIIIIIIIII love you.” At a pit stop on a fallen log, a Crested Eagle swoops into the clearing, staying long enough to pose for pictures. Manzanero, all of twenty-three, has done this hike so often, he can find the trail in the dark. The birds keep bringing him back. “I could spend a week birding here — taking my time to the top.”

His reference to the top brings the task at hand into sharp focus, as does the view from the helipad near mile twelve. The imposing image of the range’s jagged outline — five arduous miles away — is enough to make me swallow hard and engage in another round of self-questioning. It’s crucial to spend as little time as possible on the trail to get back to camp before nightfall. But that’s the last thing my sore muscles want to hear. Every step takes determined effort as the path continues skyward. As we climb pass the canopy, the lush green of Cockscomb Basin sprawls out in the valley below.

Just as I begin to develop a fear of heights, thick fog associated with an approaching cold front rolls in. It proves to be a blessing. Fear grips me on the final rappel, as my boots slip on the wet wall. My fingers can’t find a handhold. Had I been able to see just how high up I was, I’m positive the panic would have been worse. But the voice of medic Wendy Garcia calms me. “Put your weight on the rope until you find a spot. You’re not going to fall.” My entire body is trembling with both fear and exertion as I pull myself onto the sphagnum-moss–covered ledge beside him.

There’s no time to rest. After a brief descent through a dwarf forest, we climb into sunlight and through shoulder-high grass. Finally, we arrive at the flat of the summit itself. It’s still white-out conditions, with a definite chill in the air. On impulse, I tie my Belize flag headband on a post. There’s no view to be had today, but I close my eyes and envision the panorama of emerald that lies beyond the fog. The sense of satisfaction on arriving at the summit is singular. And apparently addictive. Since the first expedition to the summit in the late 1880s, a limited number of hikers have made the climb. And some of them have done it more than once. Husband and wife Rolando and Zoe Zetina boast an incredible nine-time record — hiking just for the thrill of it.

I’d like to tell you that the trek back to civilisation flew by, but the ascents and descents are just as severe. I can tell you that discovering new limits of my physical abilities, sleeping in a Hennessy hammock under a full moon surrounded by a forest full of nature, showering by waterfall, and cooking on an open fire were some of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my life. Victoria Peak just might see me again.